How Tony Iommi Learned to Write Heavy Music
Tony Iommi credited smoking hash and thinking like an actor for helping him learn how to write the heavy riffs that made Black Sabbath’s name.
Originally a fan of playing jazz music, he had to adopt a new approach after losing two fingertips in an accident in the sheet-metal factory where he worked. As he developed a different way of playing, he also worked on a fresh way of composing as Black Sabbath began to become heavy metal pioneers.
“I’d sit in a room and start imagining what sort of thing I wanted to play, like an actor putting himself into a part,” Iommi told Rolling Stone in a new interview. “But in the early days, it was probably hash or something that brought out our vibe. I never used to smoke it at all, but when we did start smoking, bloody hell, all sorts of things would pop out, good and bad. But even then, I would have probably still put myself in a mindset, imagining something that’s big and demonic or whatever, and try and put it into music.”
The influence of hash was seen in several aspects of Black Sabbath’s development, Iommi said, citing the example of the song “N.I.B.” which appeared on their self-titled debut album in 1970. “We’re in this dirty, old dressing room, smoking some dope," he recalled. "And one day Ozzy [Osbourne] said to Bill [Ward], ‘Bill, your face looks like a pen nib.’ And it just stuck. We always call Bill ‘Nibby.’ Then it got into the song, ‘N.I.B.’ The title was ‘Nib,’ but we put the dots in there to make it ‘N.I.B.’ Some people have said they thought it stands for ‘Nativity in Black,’ which sounds like the posher version.”
The guitarist reflected that his industrial accident remained a factor in his playing for the rest of his life. “Even to this day it’s still a problem," Iommi noted. "I had to try and come up with a heavier sort of sound for the Sabbath thing, because there’s certain things I couldn’t play. So I play a lot in E and let the open E string ring out. Eventually, I got a way of playing that suited me.”